Dear Friends in Christ,
Part 2: There’s a simple reason for this. While humans have advanced and continue to advance in technology and scientific knowledge, there has been no accompanying moral advance. I think of the lives cut off and lost, old and young, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, in concentration camps, on battlefields, and in school classrooms during my own lifetime. We now are able to slaughter with industrial proficiency. We are capable of breaking up a marriage, or destroying someone’s reputation, with a few twittering tweets. We can deprive a child of innocence with one video. The parables are not principally about fields, donkey rides from Jerusalem, virgins with oil lamps, old-fashioned vineyards, wandering sheep that look like goats (at least to American and European eyes), or even about wheat and weeds. The parables are about human nature, a human nature that remains very much the same whether people are flying to Mars or taking a donkey ride from one place to another. The parables are about us, but they are also about God, and how God works within us to do his will.
Nowadays, the decision to find out about a book rests almost entirely on us, unless we are young children. We read a novel for its story. We want to participate in the story, even to the extent of being an unnamed participant. If it’s a good tale, we don’t want it to end, and we may even grieve when we finally finish it. If the book is nonfiction, a different process clicks in: We want to be informed, to agree with the contents, or perhaps to disagree if we want to be informed about how other people think about the subject. We want to know about the author, his or her qualifications, what others think of the writing. The process is something like an autopsy and we hope that, when we are finished, there is enough left to make heads or tails of it. This critical method is very useful for scholars. Indeed, not to be able to critique a book or an article, to take it all at face value is very dangerous.
When Jesus was on earth, the only literature available to most Jews was what we now call the Old Testament; a devout Jew didn’t go to a book store and buy a copy of the Bible. Its contents were read in the context of worship. Jesus went into the synagogue in his home town “to pray” notice that. He was handed a scroll containing the writings of the prophets. He was asked to read and comment. This wasn’t a lecture or a bible study group; it was worship. It is all rather like one experiences in church on Sunday. People get up and read extracts taken from the Bible, and then someone, usually a priest, stands up and talks about these biblical extracts. The sermon preached isn’t just a lecture given or an essay read, because everything is in the context of corporate worship.
The books of the New Testament were first heard during Worship. No one could go and buy a personal copy of the Bible. It would take the invention of the printing press, and later the invention of cheap ways to produce books, for the Bible to become generally available and a best-seller. During a raid by Roman officials on a house church in the early era of the Church, the bishop and his priests and deacons and lay officials were forced to reveal where the holy items of worship were hidden. As a Roman official wrote down the list, someone else spoke aloud: a cup, a plate, an incense burner, and finally a holy book.